Purpose: Premedical students commonly shadow physicians to gain an understanding of what careers in medicine entail. The authors reviewed the literature to explore (1) whether shadowing achieves this goal consistently and effectively, (2) the ethical issues involved, and (3) other reasons that individuals shadow physicians.
Method: The authors searched the MEDLINE database via Ovid for English-language articles published from 1948 to March 2011. Eligible articles described physician shadowing programs and/or assessed the value of physician shadowing independently or in comparison with other educational methods.
Results: Of 770 articles identified, 13 articles about physician shadowing programs met inclusion criteria. Two of the 13 programs involved shadowing only, whereas 11 included other educational initiatives. Participants varied; shadowers included students (high school, college, medical school), recent medical school graduates, or international medical graduates. Few studies addressed shadowing by premedical students. Most studies involved programs outside the United States. Shadowing program objectives and characteristics differed. Data reported from focus groups, interviews, and surveys suggest that shadowing experiences generally increased participants' interest in medicine (or a specialty) or improved participants' confidence in transitioning to a new position. Some articles raised ethical and practical concerns related to shadowing.
Conclusions: The few shadowing programs described in the literature were heterogeneous and often involved other activities. Further research is warranted; objective outcomes measures would be useful. The authors propose developing guidelines and introducing a code of conduct for premedical students, to enhance the consistency of shadowing experiences and address ethical and practical considerations.